If you’re like me, you spend the odd few minutes a day gazing at your kid wondering what information — what happenings in his busy growing world – are being recorded in that little brain. For decades we’ve assumed that children are especially susceptible to false memories and suggestion – that they’re more likely to create events or misremember something, especially if that something was upsetting or traumatic.
But two Cornell researchers have shown that we’re all prone to misremembering (especially when we feel scared, sad, or negative in some way), but in these instances, kids’ memories are actually better than grown ups. Why would this be? In their study, the scientists gave people lists of emotionally-charged terms, like pain, cut, cry, and then later asked them to recall what they had seen. Adults were more likely to falsely remember – for example, to say the word “hurt” was in the list, when it wasn’t really there. Kids were more accurate than adults, especially when negative emotions were involved.
Our memories get fuzzier in tough times. But the fact that kids have sharper recollections than adults is surprising. The children in the study were older (7 and 11), but the explanation the scientists give includes our younger ones as well. They say kids remember events and facts more literally, whereas adults bring a ton of meaning and past experience to the table – and it clouds our vision of what really happened.
This kind of study (which is building and has been replicated in other labs) may change the way the legal system sees testimony from kids – it used to be they were notoriously unreliable sources, but the Cornell research seems to be saying that, compared to adults, that may not be true.